The second in the Proms Saturday Matinee series featured French Baroque music from the period of Louis XIV, performed by Les 24 Violons du Roy and conducted by Roger Norrington. Interestingly, there was some common ground with the Concert Spirituel concert I reviewed earlier in the Proms season in that they were both projects attempting to recreate 18th-century orchestras. In the case of Le Concert Spirituel, they had recreated Handel’s orchestra (especially the wind instruments) for British royal occasions. On the other hand, Les 24 Violons du Roy, a joint project between the Royal College of Music and Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles and led by the experienced Baroque violinist Patrick Cohën-Akenine, have recreated the string orchestra of the court of Louis XIV by commissioning copies of the instruments they would have used.

Sir Roger Norrington and Les 24 Violons du Roy at the BBC Proms © BBC / Sisi Burn
Sir Roger Norrington and Les 24 Violons du Roy at the BBC Proms
© BBC / Sisi Burn

Norrington explained from the stage how these instruments differ in size and timbre to the standard Baroque string instruments. Instead of the violins, violas, cellos and double bass, there are dessus (small violins), haute-contre, tailles and quintes (three different-sized violas), and basses de violon (equivalent of the cellos) which create a five-part ensemble with rich inner sonorities, rather than the regular four-part ensemble. Also, the bows were much shorter, enabling lively articulation. On this occasion, the string ensemble was further augmented by oboes, bassoons, trumpets and timpani, evoking the opulent music-making at the court of Louis XIV.

The composers featured in this concert were Louis’ favourite composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and his fellow court musicians at Versailles: Henry Desmaret, Marin Marais, André Campra and Michel Richard de Lalande. A five-movement suite from Lully’s late opera Armide (1686) opened the concert and set the general tone. There was a wonderful variety of instrumental colour in the movements, in particular graceful playing from the Baroque flutes in the soft and airy Air en Sourdines, followed by the solemn Passacaille with the two theorbo players emphasizing the bass line. Desmarets’ suite from his opera Circé (1694) was very much modelled on the style of Lully, but I found Prelude pour le Sommeil a delight – a slow lament on an ostinato bass reminiscent of Purcell’s music. In contrast, the concluding Gigue was lively, with castanets adding an exotic flavour.

Personally, Marais’ suite from his opera Ariane et Bacchus (1686) was a particular highlight. Most of us are only familiar with his introspective solo viol music, but his operatic works are extrovert and full of brilliance, and feature a busy and elaborate bass line which was played with gusto by the six bass players. Trumpets and timpani also played a major role in the work, firstly in Air pour les matelots in the style of a military march, and then in Air de trompettes, which opens with a trumpet solo fanfare. The suite concluded with a grand Chaconne, an imaginative and masterful set of variations developed over a recurring bass theme and performed with a lovely sense of swing.

After a further dance suite by Campra, Symphonies pour les soupez du roy (1703) by de Lalande rounded off the concert in magnificent style. This instrumental work was specifically composed as music to accompany the royal dining, and the final movement, Grand pièce royale, was a real tour de force with eloquent solos from the violin, flute, oboe and bassoon. It has a relatively large structure but the music unfolded organically, Norrington guiding the musicans along with an elegant and light touch.

Obviously a lot of research and work had gone into this project, especially in recreating the instruments, but what was more impressive was these young musicians’ mastery of the appropriate style for performing this repertoire. There were a few players who seemed less confident on these different-sized instruments, but overall their performance had the style, timbre and refinement that make the sound world of French Baroque music so unique.

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